Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Our Brand is Crisis - Carville, Bolivia, and the Limits of Democracy

While in New York, we caught Our Brand is Crisis a fascinating documentary about the election of "Goni" in Bolivia. In it, Rachel Boynton films (with surprisingly complete access) the participation of Clinton's and John Kerry's consultants, Greenberg Carville Shrum, in the successful campaign of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada ("Goni") to gain a plurality of 22%, and thus the presidency of that fascinating country.

This is no simple tale of political banter, though. The film starts with a clash between government troops and Bolivian protestors in the final days of Goni's presidency, before he resigned and fled to suburban Washington, DC, and that image of disaster colors the whole project. This film forces the viewer, in a direct and compelling manner, to face the consequences of the political game.

Other reviewers have seen the film as a work demonstrating that American-style political consulting can bring about disastrous results in other cultures. From Chris Barsanti, "What the film ably shows is how a band of Washington consultants can contribute to bloodshed and near societal collapse in a Third World nation whose politics can't be reduced to the same Beltway template now being exported around the world." From Timothy Knight, "Without ever getting strident or sanctimonious, the film vividly demonstrates the potential hazards of trying to export American-style democracy overseas." Those reviewers miss the point, as demonstrated by the clueless but on-to-something Kyle Smith of the New York Post - "Why shouldn't Bolivia be entitled to sophisticated polling advice?"

The problem exposed by the movie is a problem at the heart of democracy, and one which is exacerbated where a candidate can achieve leadership with a 22% plurality. At one point, Goni, while still on the campaign trail, dismisses the thought of relying on the voice of the people to decide a difficult and technical question of how to export Bolivia's vast stores of natural gas. Later in the film, Carville muses on the fact that Goni's popularity peaked on the day of the election, and that had the election taken place the day after or the day before, he may have lost. And, Carville admits, that sort of peak is like a climax - it's tough to control exactly when it will come.

So, on the day of the election, 22% of Bolivia's people happened to choose Goni, but he never had a majority of public support. After imposing an income tax that impacted the already-poor, and agreeing to export natural gas through hated neighbor Chile, Goni became the target of protests and demonstrations, led by those who came within a few percentage points of gaining his precarious seat of power.

"Our Brand is Crisis" shows some of the limits of democracy. Where, as in the United States, only a minority of people select the leadership, where is the guaranty that the true will of the people will be victorious? Beyond that, how does the will of the people play into solving complex issues that the average voter may not even be able to articulate, much less solve?

Uncomfortably, the villain of this challenging documentary is not Goni, or the political consultants, or Goni's opponents. The boy we see in a pool of blood at the beginning of the film was killed by a failure in democracy.


Anonymous anonymous Me said...

Hard questions all. Democracy as practiced here is probably not generally exportable in our form; I would argue that we don't really have a democracy, but a republic, in any case. See the MO CCW post below. You may think that is a distinction without a difference, but I think it is a difference that matters. Note your next to last paragraph to see how it matters.

Part of the stability of the American republic comes from fixed terms, rather than open-ended terms like a parliamentary system. If there are not a fairly small number of fairly broad parties (i.e. Britain), such a system often leads to gov't after gov't collapsing. There is no reason to compromise to accomplish goals when the gov't can be brought down at any time.

Another part of the puzzle is that parties in American democracy agree far more than we disagree. Our disagreements, as vocal as they may be, are largely at the edges of the political/social system. We all agree, for example, that gov't should not search without PC and/or a warrant, generally. Exactly what PC is, or when there may be a warrant exception is what we fight over - and those are the details. The fundamentals of the American political/social system are almost universally accepted - that is why I always cringe when I see any politician (other than the MOST EXTREME edges) refered to as "nazi" or "commmunist/stalinist." No one anywhere the electable stream of American politics fits those labels. The are not labels designed to aid debate - they are designed to end debate.

Perhaps most important, we simply accept the principle that those who win, get to govern, at least until the political system puts different leadership in power. We here in the US forget just how amazing it is that those who govern willingly surrender power at the end of their terms or after their electoral defeat. That is a precious and relatively thing. Thank God for it. Much of the world has not gotten that far.

I know - too long. Stream of consciousness stuff. I'm in mid-jury trial. My brain is overloaded. Cut me a break.

3/08/2006 4:54 PM  
Anonymous anonymous Me said...

edit -

"That is a precious and relatively RARE thing."

C'mon,me, get the most important word in there!!!

3/08/2006 4:56 PM  
Blogger thepoetryman said...

Republic. Yes.

clickety clack

3/08/2006 10:59 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Good points, Anonymous Me - and I am wildly impressed you took the time to express them in the midst of a jury trial. Good luck - let us know how it comes out.

3/09/2006 6:27 AM  
Blogger emawkc said...

Damn! That Anonymous guy is smart. And he has a lot of great quotes, too.

3/09/2006 9:28 AM  
Blogger Robert A. Hamilton Chicago said...

If I read the post correctly, it was not the failure of the process which produced the results, it was Goni's actions after he was elected which caused him to be runn oft. (I thought I just saw something move...)

Bob Hamilton

3/23/2006 3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous Me said...

(I thought I just saw something move...)

What does that mean? - I'm confused.

3/27/2006 10:41 AM  

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